On a lonely stretch of road in the Midwest, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) drives a beat-up station wagon past a trio of dilapidated billboards less than a mile from her home. It’s near this spot where her daughter Angela was brutally murdered the previous year, and frustration with the local police and their lack of progress on the investigation finally boils over, sending Mildred into the offices of local advertising man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones).
With an envelope of cash and a handwritten note, Mildred rents all three billboards for the foreseeable future, and soon anyone driving that same stretch of road is met with a very direct inquiry:
Raped While Dying
And Still No Arrests
How Come, Chief Willoughby?
As pointed out by Willoughby himself (Woody Harrelson), this isn’t exactly fair: it’s not that the Ebbing police have neglected their duties. There was very little physical evidence at the crime scene, no matches for the DNA samples collected by the forensics team, and no eyewitnesses to the heinous act, giving Willoughby and his men precious little to build an investigation around. But Mildred can’t be bothered with facts and logic: her emotional states is well beyond the point of reason.
The incendiary message quickly becomes the talk of the town, and the close-knit community’s affection for Willoughby puts Mildred at odds with just about everyone, from the local dentist (who tries to exact revenge by refusing to give Mildred Novocaine during a root canal and getting a hole drilled through his hand in the process), to Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an oafish, alcoholic deputy with a cruel streak, to Mildred’s violent ex-husband (John Hawkes), who left her for a woman half his age and only comes around to occasionally berate Mildred and their son (Lucas Hedges).
Each of these characters seems to fit within a particular archetype, but the beauty of Martin McDonagh’s script is how elegantly it subverts expectations, revealing the flaws in Mildred and the honorable qualities in Willoughby while never taking a stance on which (if either) is correct. At first, it’s easy to be sympathetic toward Mildred, but as the narrative unfolds she becomes increasingly more difficult to side with, and when a would-be suitor (Peter Dinklage) takes her to task over her cold demeanor, we’re tempted to cheer him on.
Meanwhile, Willoughby’s own struggles – both with a lack of resources and a personal health issue – may cause audiences to reconsider their feelings toward the lawman. Even Dixon, a small-minded racist whose wanton acts of savagery should make him irredeemable, isn’t quite the monster we anticipate, nor is he incapable of doing something noble despite his laundry list of flaws. There’s a strong argument to be made that Three Billboards is just as much Dixon’s story as Mildred’s, and his arc is certainly the more interesting and though-provoking.
With its multi-layered script, award-worthy performances and characters that continue to surprise at every turn, McDonagh has delivered another superb film that nearly exceeds his previous efforts. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is less a story about a small-town murder, and more an examination of grief and the dangers of allowing it to consume us, told with a darkly humorous twist that only a select few filmmakers could successfully pull off.
McDormand's foul-mouthed mom and Harrelson's cantankerous police chief are both compelling characters in their own right, but it's Rockwell's dim-witted deputy who emerges as the most interesting player in this small-town tale of grief and loss.